It’s All Been Done: Combating the Obsession with Originality

Recently, I’ve received an aggravating reminder that the world has this obsession with things that are deemed “new” and “original”. Writers of fiction are particularly prone to falling into this trap of believing that anything that has been written before is better. Why is it better? Because they were the first to think of it; it must be genius. A writer must be original or fade into obscurity (or worse be called a “rip off”). The very worst offense is being cliche. Everybody has seen it. Everyone knows what’s going to happen. Unless we have our own piece of this Holy Grail of literature in this world that prizes, what hope is there…? Nobody cares about the person who did something second. Taking another’s material is one of the greatest offenses known to writers. We are told that unless we have an original idea then we have nothing to contribute. It’s a copy, so it’s no good. Right?

Wrong. 

How many times have you heard someone say, “Everything Hollywood does is so predictable. There’s nothing new. Just the same rehashed drivel” or “Oh my God, that’s such a rip off. Just a poor man’s [blah blah blah].”

Well, I have one thing to say to anyone caught uttering these phrases: shut your face. Wow, that may have come out a bit harsher than I intended, but it’s infuriating! First, said person whose face is not shut is ignoring a long history of perfectly good “thievery”, and second, they’re disguising this ignorance as pretentiousness. And I don’t even know how you do that.

Then, there’s this frequently verbalized statement: “I want to write, but I don’t have anything original to say.”

It’s not equally infuriating, but it’s close. Why does it have to be completely original? It makes no sense to me. What if I were to say, “Why should I wear these jeans? I’m sure I’m not the only one who is wearing them. Someone might look better in these jeans than me. And what if someone knows that I’m wearing the same jeans? What if I can’t make a living off of wearing these jeans? I’ll be mortified.” It’s ridiculous. If you’re not going to do something, you better have a good reason. Why should I climb Mt. Everest if someone else has already done it? The answer is because I don’t want to die. So, unless I’m going to die by wearing these jeans, I’m going to wear them proudly, and my butt is going to look really good too.

If you want to write, do it. Even the most derivative story, if it is enjoyable, makes its un-originality irrelevant. Pure and simple.

For example, when I walked into my first Shakespeare class, my professor, Dr. Barrett, told us that Shakespeare had ripped off every one of his plays from various Italian playwrights and his rival of the time Christopher Marlowe. I was horrified. My little spirit was broken. Could it be? The genius behind all of those plays and poems was a hack. (Say it ain’t so, Billy. Say it ain’t so!) So, why were we reading it then? Other than the fact that none of us (except the weird kid in the back) could read Italian, why were we reading this?

Because he’s freaking Shakespeare! That’s why.

Shakespeare focused on the details. It wasn’t what he wrote, but how he wrote it. He took something and said, “I’m going to make this mine.” It was entertaining. It was explained to me that this sort of borrowing happened all the time. In fact, the success of a play might be dependent on the audience already knowing the story. Almost everyone who went to see these plays knew what was going to happen far before they went to see them. He knew his audience, and he knew how to write for them. The only difference was the prose and various sub-plots. In other words, how the playwright handled the material.

So, what can we learn?

How to be Derivative and Totally Awesome

1) Accept it. Hi, my name is Colleen, and I am derivative. I’m not the first to write about Angels, Demons, and mythology, and I won’t be the last. Be that as it may, I like my work. I can’t just sit here loathing myself because someone else did it before me. I made use of everything I loved about those other works (it helps when all the myth makers are dead) and put it into mine. Actually, it’s the same in life as it is in writing. Love yourself and other people will love you for it.

2) Do your research. I once had to take a class on writing with authority. This was for essays, but it’s the same when it comes to any type of writing. The reader wants to feel that you’re in command of this story. They won’t want to feel like you’re following along with a formula. The more you know about your subject matter, the more authority you have. Do your research.

3) Know your audience. A writer’s relationship with the reader is everything. Notice how this keeps coming up? I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Communication, in its many forms, happens when the message is encoded and is then received and decoded by the audience. They are as much involved in your story as you are. The point is to make them care. No matter if it’s making them happy or sad, it’s about moving and engaging them. If they are engaged, the rest is almost negligible.

4) Make your characters real people. This is tied into knowing your audience. There are certain parts of the human experience that many can relate to. The more a person an relate to a character, the more that they’re likely to care about that character. The difference is in the details.

Being derivative doesn’t have to mean being a copy or being boring. And you do not have to be 100% original in order for your efforts to be good. Do what you do, and do it well. And I would say even if “haters gonna hate”, but then I’d have to kick my own ass (and it looks so good in these jeans).

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